Landing : Athabascau University

Research reveals the dark side of wearable fitness trackers

From CNN, a report suggesting that fitness trackers are not always wonderful things. 

The only thing that surprises me about this is that the reported demotivating effects are not much stronger. I suspect this is an artefact of the way the research was conducted. For this kind of study that relies on self-reported feelings, especially where subjects are invested in wanting this to be a good thing, unwanted effects are likely to be inaccurately reported.

"When we asked the women how they felt without their Fitbit, many reported feeling "naked" (45%) and that the activities they completed were wasted (43%). Some even felt less motivated to exercise (22%)."

The fact that 43% of subjects thought activities without the aid of a Fitbit were wasted implies that the few that reported feeling less motivated were just the extremes. At least another 21% were clearly demotivated too, even by these skewed results, and I am almost certain that a deeper delve into the feelings of the remainder would have revealed far more that felt this way. It may be that they either had other forms of extrinsic motivation to compensate or that, in a small percentage of cases, their intrinsic motivation was so high that they could overcome the effects. A clearer view appears when the researchers asked about how the tool worked:

"Perhaps more alarming, many felt under pressure to reach their daily targets (79%) and that their daily routines were controlled by Fitbit (59%). Add to this that almost 30% felt that Fitbit was an enemy and made them feel guilty, and suddenly this technology doesn't seem so perfect."

This result is more along the lines of what most other research reveals as probable, and it strongly suggests that the demotivating effects are much stronger than those that were self-reported.  As with all extrinsic motivation, it kind-of works as long as the extrinsic motivation continues to be applied. It's addictive. In fact, like most addictions, there are usually diminishing returns on this, so the rewards/punishments have to be increased over time for them to achieve similar effects. It would be interesting to return to these subjects at a later date to see how their feelings have changed.

I suppose that it is not too bad a thing that there are people doing more exercise than they otherwise might because a device is rewarding, punishing, and goading them to do so. However, it creates a dependency that is great for Fitbit, but bad for the soul, and bad for long-term fitness because, without these devices, people will feel even less motivated than before. Moreover, it rewards only certain kinds of exercise, mainly walking and jogging.

I have felt these effects myself, having been the recipient of a gift of a similar Polar Flow device and having worn it for over a year. It goaded me with commands to get up and jog, and set targets for me that I could not control and did not want. As a result, I found that I cycled less, sailed less, exercised less and did fewer of the things that the device did not record. Perhaps I walked a bit more (often in preference to cycling) but, overall, my fitness suffered. This happened despite knowing full well in advance what it was going to do to my motivation.  I thought I could overcome that, but it's a powerful drug. It has taken months to recover from this. I do now wear a Pebble watch that does record similar information and that has similar blind spots, but it does not (yet) try to be proactive in goading me to walk or jog. I feel more in control of it, seeing it now as a bit of partial information rather than a dumb coach nagging me to behave as its programmers want me to behave. I choose when and whether to view the information, and I choose what actions to take on it. This reveals a general truth about technologies of this nature: they should informate, not automate.


  • "Re: Perhaps more alarming, many felt under pressure to reach their daily targets (79%) and that their daily routines were controlled by Fitbit (59%).

    Uhm, a research study on the (positive) impact of such devices on (bad) habits one wishes to discard would be ideal at this point in time -- thoughts?

    Rita Zuba Prokopetz September 4, 2016 - 5:59am

  • Indeed, sometimes a bit of extrinsic motivation can help to get us over humps. If you weigh 200 kilos then the good of reducing that probably outweighs the harm of extrinsic motivation, as there is immediate and pressing danger to self, and extrinsic motivation can often achieve immediate results. But it is still not a good method. Long term, it is positively harmful to cultivating lifelong habits that persist, unless you keep piling it on indefinitely. Short term, at best, it is far less effective than cultivating intrinsic or internally regulated motivation, albeit that it may achieve its effects more rapidly at first. Typically, it kills intrinsic motivation stone dead.

    Theory distinguishes two distinct forms of extrinsic motivation: external regulation and internal regulation. External regulation is nearly always bad, unless non-compliance would cause immediate harm (e.g. we might externally regulate our kids if they are doing something dangerous or unkind). Internal regulation can be very good. It comes in several flavours - introjected, identified, or integrated  - where we do things not because they give us joy, but because (for instance) we feel we should (it fits our beliefs, or what we believe others think we should do), or because it aligns with our image of ourselves, or because it is needed to achieve some further goal that matters to us. Such internally regulated extrinsic motivation is both necessary and useful, especially when it contributes to a sense of self-worth and value, and it can contribute to achieving a sufficient level of performance to become intrinsically motivated (e.g. when we practice scales to become more capable musicians). This is why I greatly prefer tools like my Pebble watch that simply inform us, thereby supporting us in reaching our own goals and cultivating the habits we want to cultivate. This is why good (human) trainers help trainees to find the motivation within themselves, to reflect on what they want to achieve and how they want to achieve it, who praise effective behaviours rather than the individual, who listen to what trainees want to achieve, who explain the value of doing things a certain way, illustrate the problems with bad habits, show that they care, lead by example, and so on. Good teachers help students find reasons that matter to them for doing things they don't naturally enjoy doing, and support them in overcoming humps along the way.

    Dumb devices that achieve those ends by telling you to get up and jog, and berate you for not meeting goals you did not set yourself (whether by implication or directly) might achieve immediate effects but they are either deliberately or inadvertently creating an addiction. Short term, it works, but it has the opposite effect when you take it away. There have been literally thousands of studies and experiments that have shown this quite conclusively, across all walks of life. Knowing this, for all the short-term good it may achieve, I think it is positively immoral to continue making such things.


    Jon Dron September 4, 2016 - 12:03pm

  • re: "Good teachers help students find reasons that matter to them for doing things they don't naturally enjoy doing, and support them in overcoming humps along the way."

    and "...good (human) trainers help trainees to find the motivation within themselves..."

    Point taken. Thank you for the informative paragraph on motivation. 

    I need to learn more about what is available in wearables, including the Pebble watch you mentioned. 

    I find your posts both informative and interesting- thanks! 

    Rita Zuba Prokopetz September 4, 2016 - 3:29pm

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